Late last year, to protect hospitality workers from sexual harassment and assault, the Chicago City Council passed what is known as the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance. This legislation requires all Chicago hotels to:

  1. provide a “panic button” for employees working alone;
  2. adopt an effective anti-sexual harassment policy; and
  3. face real “teeth” such as fines and other penalties for repeat offenses or for retaliating against workers who raise complaints.

While the law’s details are interesting, what it represents more broadly offers a lesson for all employers.

First, the ordinance appears unique in requiring a specific action to protect vulnerable workers: employers must provide all employees who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms a “panic button” (or other portable emergency contact device) that alerts and summons hotel security or management to their location in response to a crime, sexual harassment or assault, or other emergency. While existing federal and state laws created a duty for employers to protect its employees, this legislation uniquely sets out a specific method they must use to address a specifically risky situation. This law resulted after many hospitality employees reported on years of assaults and being subjected to hotel guests’ inappropriate behavior.

Second, this local law requires hotels to develop, maintain, and comply with a written anti-sexual harassment policy that protects employees from assaults and harassment by hotel guests. While many hotels likely already had general policies, this ordinance suggests that local lawmakers concluded the policies were not being complied with or were ineffective. The new law includes detailed requirements for the policy that go beyond normal employer rules, including (i) instructing employees to stop working and leave the area of any perceived danger, (ii) providing temporary work assignments for complaining employees while a guest remains at the hotel, and (iii) providing paid time off for employees to file police reports or testify in resulting legal proceedings.

Finally, clearly anticipating a possible weakness in the panic button provision, the ordinance also makes it unlawful for hotels to retaliate against employees for reasonably using a panic button or speaking out about a violation of this law. Further, the ordinance provides daily fines for violations, and states that hotels with 2 or more violations in any 12-month period may have their business license suspended or revoked. For local hotel operators, those are potentially serious penalties.

But if you are not a Chicago area hotel, why does this law matter? Well, it should remind all employers that they need to take specific steps to protect all employees, including uniquely vulnerable employees, from assaults and sexual harassment. One-size-fits-all policies that are not effective will not be enough. If employers do not take sufficient steps that really work, local or state authorities may require certain additional actions. As with this Chicago ordinance, those requirements might be detailed and costly, with a real impact on business operations.

Likewise, this Chicago law underscores that employers must seriously address issues of employee sexual harassment and assault – whether by co-workers, visitors or customers – and take all reasonable steps to prevent it, as well as addressing it when it happens anyway. Failing to act, whether in a community generally, an industry specifically, or at a single worksite, causes real harm to employees and liability to employers. Further, employers who are deemed “unresponsive” to such issues or “unwilling” to protect their employees may receive public scorn, harm employee relations and their public reputations, and may even get legislative attention they certainly should want to avoid.